This is an archived issue of Belletrista. If you are looking for the current issue, you can find it here
Belletrista - A site promoting translated women authored literature from around the world


by Kristina Olsson
Reviewed by Amanda Meale

The China Garden's opening chapter marks the bookends of life—birth and death. A newborn baby is discovered, abandoned, and ageing artist Angela dies. Also, Angela's daughter, Laura, finds that she has a brother who was adopted out, and so we wait for two possible reunions: baby and mother, brother and sister.

Olsson has chosen to tell this story mainly through two tangential characters—Kieran and his grandmother Cress. Kieran is in his thirties, works part-time and is obsessed with TV quiz shows. His night-time wanderings lead him to Angela's studio and by the time she dies Kieran is her closest friend. Affected by some disorder—perhaps a form of Asperger's—Kieran roams the town, blithely noting sunny days, small miracles of nature and beauty in the mundane:

[Kieran] walked out of the park towards the esplanade, stopping to examine the rough sandstone blocks in an old wall, the faded green like an old man's eyes, the lilac. He stared at fabrics on men's shirts, the paisleys and checks, finding them intricate and clever, and the astounding curve of a woman's upper arm as she reached to touch something, a leaf perhaps.

Cress is a widow and not entirely happy with her life. She ponders the mysteries of life and death and human behaviour.

She ran a brush around the dishes, her thoughts lost in its circular motion and the fluorescent shine of the suds. Was it the song that filled her eyes—ridiculously, unexpectedly—with hot, unfamiliar tears? She blinked them away, her hand continuing its circle around the edge of the plates. But she found herself inside the same circle of sadness as she dried the plates, around and around.

Then there is Laura who has returned to Australia from France to settle her mother's affairs. Estranged from Angela for several years, Laura also wants to understand the mother she has lost and find some sign that she, Laura, was loved.

Each character is well-developed, and we come to accept their doubts, their flaws and their strengths. Kieran is especially endearing. It is perhaps the fourth, silent character which I came to love most of all—the physical environment. The Australian bush and the coastline weave their own spell:

Every shade of green was there. Every measure, every pattern of leaf and bark too, tear-drop, grey daub, tree ferns with finger spans and fists. She [Laura] had to tread carefully: the great trees and vines and roots pawed at the paths; the forest was dank and fecund and insatiable.

Olsson's prose is lovely and The China Garden is ultimately life-affirming. Everywhere there is beauty—in the writing, in the characters, in the setting, and in the ordinary business of living.